The Reduction of the Gospel

Remember the Goodness of the Good News

The central word for Christians, especially evangelicals. We hear it so often, it is used so much, that the real possibility is that it has lost its meaning. Like the old Jon Lovitz appearance on “Friends” (S1E15), “The One with the Stoned Guy”, the character Steve says, “Tartlets. Tartlets…tartlets. The word has lost all meaning.”

We have “gospel-centered ministries”, “gospel-centered preaching”, “gospel missions”, and so on. Gospel. Gospel…gospel. The word has lost all meaning.

Let’s recover the meaning, shall we?

The word “gospel” translates from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, or “euaggelion”. The two gammas (Greek “g’s”) together make an “ng” sound — like in “Tang”. Furthermore, the “eu” often got changed to the Latinized “ev”, and meant “good”. “αγγέλους” (angelous) is Greek for Angel, or messenger. One can therefore see how we would get “evangel” in English, and the rough translation “good news/message”.

In the landscape of ancient Greek literature, extending through the 1st century but steering clear of the New Testament for now so as to not be circular, this term εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) carried an interwoven web of meanings, predominantly centered around the concept of delivering good news or significant announcements. This term, with its versatile applications, painted a vivid picture of the diverse aspects of Greek life, from the battlefield to the political to the realm of philosophical discourse.

Originally, εὐαγγέλιον found its roots in the context of military victories. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides vividly depicted scenes where messengers, brimming with news of triumphs and conquests, were heralds of εὐαγγέλιον. This imagery underscored the term’s role in communicating pivotal moments that shaped the fate of city-states and empires.

Beyond the clangor of warfare, εὐαγγέλιον seamlessly wove itself into the fabric of everyday life, marking joyous personal milestones such as births or marriages, especially in noble circles. It also resonated within the political arena of Greek city-states, encapsulating announcements of political significance — the forging of beneficial treaties, the ascendancy of popular leaders, or the enactment of laws that promised prosperity and well-being.

In the realm of literature and philosophy, εὐαγγέλιον was embraced metaphorically, symbolizing the enlightenment brought forth through wisdom or philosophical insights. Here, the term transcended its literal confines, becoming a vessel for intellectual and spiritual illumination.

However, it was in the imperial context, particularly poignant during the Roman period of the 1st century, that εὐαγγέλιον took on a profound and expansive significance. In this era, the term was skillfully adapted to the grandeur and political machinations of the Roman Empire. It came to denote the proclamations related to the emperor — be it celebrating his achievements, marking his birth, or heralding his accession to the throne. This adaptation of εὐαγγέλιον underscored its role as a potent tool in the narrative of imperial propaganda, a narrative that sought to intertwine the emperor’s persona with the destiny and well-being of the empire itself.

Building on the imperial connotations of εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the Roman context, the New Testament, and particularly the writings of Paul, repurposed this term to convey a revolutionary message. In the New Testament, εὐαγγέλιον transforms into a proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, framing it as the ultimate good news that offers salvation and a new kingdom fundamentally in competition to the message and purpose of that of Caesar and Rome.

Paul, in his epistles, strategically employs εὐαγγέλιον to contrast the Christian message with the imperial narrative. Where the Roman use of εὐαγγέλιον centered around the emperor’s achievements, authority, and the political might of the empire, Paul and other New Testament writers redefined it as a message of spiritual liberation, divine grace, and the establishment of God’s kingdom. This kingdom, as presented in the Christian narrative, was not one of limited earthly power and political dominion, but rather an ultimately cosmos-wide and eternal kingdom established by Christ. This built upon the idea submitted by Christ in the Great Commission, that the basis for converting and discipling the nations was a result of all power being granted to Him.

In this context, εὐαγγέλιον becomes a subversive term. It challenges the Roman imperial ideology by presenting Jesus Christ as the true Lord and King, a direct counterpoint to the emperor. This redefinition was both radical and risky, as it implicitly undermined the authority and divinity claims of the Roman Emperor, which grew with each iteration. By proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the early Christians were not merely sharing a religious belief but were also making a political statement.

Moreover, Paul’s use of εὐαγγέλιον emphasizes the universal nature of Christ’s message, transcending the ethnic and cultural boundaries of the Roman Empire. Unlike the Roman euangelion, which reinforced the existing social and political order, the Christian euangelion promised inclusion, redemption, and hope to all people, regardless of their status or nationality. This universal appeal was a key factor in the spread of Christianity across the diverse populations of the Roman Empire.

The New Testament’s appropriation of εὐαγγέλιον represents a strategic and theologically loaded reworking, or perhaps what today we’d call “rebranding”, of the term. It reflects a deliberate contrast with Roman imperial propaganda, presenting the Christian gospel as a salvific alternative to the power and authority of Caesar and Rome. 

In the continuum of the term εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), from its imperial Roman connotations to its transformative use in the New Testament, we observe a fascinating evolution that reaches into modern Evangelical Protestantism. While the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul, recast εὐαγγέλιον as a deeply political and subversive message, contrasting the dominion of Rome with the spiritual kingdom of Christ, modern Evangelical Protestantism has, in many ways, distilled this term into a more individualized and doctrinal message, often emphasizing “the gospel” as a formula for personal salvation through faith alone.

In the New Testament context, as we’ve seen, εὐαγγέλιον was a bold and multifaceted proclamation. It was not just about spiritual salvation; it was also a declaration of a new kind of kingdom, one that stood in stark contrast to the power and glory of the Roman Empire. This gospel was revolutionary, challenging the prevailing social and political structures, and proclaiming a new lordship in Jesus Christ, a direct affront to the imperial claims of the Roman emperors.

Fast forward to modern Evangelical Protestantism, and we see a significant shift in emphasis. The richly political and communal aspects of εὐαγγέλιον have been largely overshadowed by a focus on individual salvation and personal faith. This version of “the gospel” is often presented as a simple formula: belief in Christ as one’s personal savior ensures justification and eternal life. This interpretation is deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation, particularly in the theology of figures like Martin Luther, who emphasized justification by faith alone as the central tenet of Christian belief.

This doctrinal focus, while profoundly meaningful for many believers, diverges from the broader and more communal implications of εὐαγγέλιον as used in the New Testament. In its original context, the gospel was not just about individual salvation; it was a call to a new way of life, a new community, and a new social order. It was a message that challenged the status quo and invited believers into a transformative journey that had both personal and collective dimensions.

In modern Evangelical Protestantism, the emphasis on personal faith and individual salvation, though powerful and central to its doctrine, tends to underplay the communal, societal, and indeed political implications of the New Testament gospel. This shift reflects broader changes in the way religious faith is understood and practiced in the modern world, often focusing more on personal spirituality and less on communal or societal transformation.

Thus, while the term “gospel” in both contexts speaks to the profound impact of Christ’s message, its interpretation and emphasis have undergone significant changes. From a radical, communal, and politically charged proclamation in the New Testament, it has evolved into a more individualized and doctrinal message in modern Evangelical Protestantism, reflecting the diverse and evolving nature of Christian thought and practice through the ages.

When we flatten the “good news” to a simple theological formula, we often get side effects that aren’t listed on the warning label. The richness of a truly Christian culture is deemphasized. The themes of the growth and maturation of man and mankind are lost to a simple conversionism that resembles a concert and a TED Talk about fire insurance.

But perhaps the biggest setback caused by flattening the message of “The Gospel” is that it allows Pastors to ignore the requirements that are part and parcel of the pledge of allegiance implied when we are called to “obey the gospel”.

This exhortation to “obey the gospel” can be understood in the context nature of εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) that we’ve explored. This term, which evolved from its Roman imperial connotations to a profoundly subversive and redemptive message in the New Testament, calls for a response that is not just intellectual assent but an active, transformative obedience. We should remember that the demons believe, and “shudder”. 

In the New Testament, particularly in Paul, “obeying the gospel” is not simply about adhering to a set of doctrinal beliefs or engaging in religious rituals. Instead, it is about embracing a new way of life that aligns with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. This obedience is a response to the revolutionary message of Christ, which contrasts starkly with the prevailing social, political, and religious norms of the Roman Empire.

To “obey the gospel” in this context means to participate in the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed—a kingdom characterized by values like love, justice, mercy, and humility. This obedience involves a radical reorientation of one’s life, priorities, and relationships. It’s not just a personal or private matter but has communal and societal implications. It calls for a commitment to live out the principles of the gospel in every aspect of life, including how one interacts with society and exercises power and influence.

This exhortation challenges the status quo, just as the early Christian message did in its original Roman context. It implies a loyalty and allegiance to Christ that supersedes other allegiances, whether they be political, cultural, or social. In a world where the emperor’s word was law and his person was almost divine, to “obey the gospel” was to assert that true authority and ultimate allegiance belonged to Christ, not Caesar.

In summary, the New Testament’s call to “obey the gospel” is a call to active engagement with the transformative message of Christ. It’s an invitation to be part of a new kingdom, one that operates on principles radically different from those of the prevailing culture. This obedience is comprehensive, affecting not just personal beliefs and morals, but also public behavior, social relationships, and societal structures. It represents a holistic commitment to the way of life and the new social order that Jesus Christ inaugurated.

This understanding, this correct understanding of εὐαγγέλιον, of “the gospel”, stands in direct contrast to that which would lead a long-term preacher of such to suggest that the followers of Christ participate in pagan festivals, even if they happen to be called weddings. We shouldn’t be pharisaic in our understanding of how to apply standards of Christian living, but we should be faithful to the very real Kingdom that Jesus Christ, our present King, has established in The Gospel.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Ronald Dodson

Ronald Dodson is CEO and Portfolio Manager of Dallas North Capital Partners, a private fund management firm. He also frequently writes on geopolitical developments and global risk. He has worked with the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. His interests include the Noahic Covenant gentile believers in the ancient world, continental theology and coaching soccer. He is a deacon in the PCA.

10 thoughts on “The Reduction of the Gospel

  1. Dodson may have added a Roman context in defining the word ‘Gospel,’ but the issue is how did the Apostles see the word and in which contexts did they use it. And it is difficult to believe when Paul warns us not to conform to the present world but embrace a new mind, that we should use the Roman use of the word ‘Gospel’ as the primary or even significant context in understanding the word. The same goes for when Paul wrote in I Cor 5 about disciplining a member of the church there for sexual immorality. There, he explicitly wrote that sexual purity of society did not concern him. The same goes for when Paul defines the Gospel in Romans and Galatians, the Gospel is described in contrast to depending on the law in our relating to God. Or consider in Philippians when Paul gladly forsakes whatever pride he would have by his keeping of the law and Jewish citizenship, he gives that up to cling to Christ. Or consider when the writer of Hebrews tells us that we have no home on earth or when Peter describes our life on earth as living in exile, how is it that we use the Roman use of the word ‘Gospel’ to understand how the New Testament writers used it? For when Peter mentioned living in exile, Old Testament Israel provided the context. The New Testament writers used the word within the context of reliance on the law, which was a center part of the Jewish religion, at that time, as the context for understanding the word ‘Gospel.’ Most, if not all of the above, of which Dodson either glosses over or even neglects to mention when defining the word ‘Gospel.’

    It is true that many American Evangelicals have read too much individualism into the Gospel, especially American individualism. But that does not imply that we should first, or even significantly, use the Roman use of the word to understand what the New Testament writers meant by the word. And if we add to that what Jesus said about his Kingdom not being an earthly kingdom, how can we understand Dodson’s claim that the Gospel was presenting a competing kingdom to any earthly kingdom? After all, Jesus did not present Himself or His Kingdom as one that was one that was of this world, but rather, it was one that could coexist with Rome if Rome chose to. Jesus’s Kingdom has never been one that was in competition with Rome or any other kingdom in the Scriptures even though those who belong to Jesus are to place their highest allegiance in Him.

    Does the Gospel have implications on society? Yes, but always within the confines of the Scriptures, especially the New Testament Scriptures. To not rely on the Scriptures for those confines in order to avoid being circular is to allow one to introduce into the Gospel what one wants to. And doing so misses the whole point of God’s revelation to us. That it is God, not us, who defines the Gospel. That is because it is God who must reveal Himself to us for us to know Him.

    On the other hand, Christian Nationalism is about various levels of imposition of Church law and traditions on society. Such has never been a part of the Gospel as presented in the New Testament. The Epistles show that the Great Commission is carried out by preaching and teaching, not by force. Jesus told His disciples that when people reject the Gospel, they were to move on. Jesus warned His disciples against ‘lording it over others.’ And though the context of that warning was about how Christians should relate to each other and unbelievers, that His disciples should not be like the Gentiles tells us that that warning also applies to how we share society with unbelievers. And yet, Christian Nationalism revolves around the Church’s efforts to ‘lord it over others.’

    1. “Christian Nationalism is about various levels of imposition of Church law and traditions on society”
      Yes, but not “Church law”. God’s law. Because we are commanded to do justice and seek righteousness. That doesn’t mean only in our individual lives, it means in our public lives too. Someone will always impose morality on the nation- thats what laws are. Should the laws of a nation be just, and should we not seek justice? Or should we seek pagan laws, seek to let Moloch tell the nation what is right and wrong, rather than Jesus Christ?
      Scripture demands the former, and that means every true Christian is a Christian Nationalist of some flavor.

      1. Kyle,
        If someone should always impose morality on the nations, then every sin should be punished not just by the Church but by the state too? Before answering that question, realize that, as James said, we all ‘stumble in many ways.’ So each of our own sins requires punishment by the government?

        Or let’s take an example, it is against Church, and God’s, law to worship other gods. To do so would mean one should be expelled from the Church. So the state should punish everyone who holds to a different religion than Christianity? Or should only the Church punish those who have joined who worship another god?

        Or take the sin committed in I Cor 5 for another example. What was the punishment Paul exacted on that person? Wasn’t part of the punishment to put the man out into society without access Church resources? Paul wasn’t expecting the state to also punish the man. Rather, the punishment was for the man to live in a sinful society outside of the protection provided by the Church.

        We are to pursue righteousness in the nations. But there are multiple ways to do that and not all of which includes punishment by the state. We pursue righteousness and morality simply when we preach the Gospel. That is because part of preaching the Gospel is to tell people to repent of their sins. And so is it the state’s responsibility to punish those who do not favorably respond to our preaching? Or did Jesus tell His disciples to move on from those who don’t accept their preaching? And didn’t Jesus warn us against ‘lording it over’ others?

        When you used the word always, you prevent yourself from making distinctions, which are clear in the New Testament, between those sins that require the state’s punishment from those that do not. When we preach the Gospel, remember that it is God who grants people time to repent. If we use the state to punish those who don’t respond right away, we are interfering with the time God has granted people with time to repent.

    2. I appreciate the time taken for such a lengthy response. I think there is a slight, at least, demarcation between Christ’s earthly ministry, and the ministry post-resurrection, after the great commission was issued and then taken up by the apostles. Jesus, Joshua the Second, primarily was taking over Jerusalem as the conquerer and new king. It was his apostles mission to begin to conquer the rest of the cosmos.

      I hold to zero syncretism, but the words we use come from the everyday life God places us in. So it was in the 1st Century, a world, a cosmos God had prepared beforehand for this Gospel to go out.

      The right response to the gospel being announced is the bent knee.

      1. Ron,
        Jesus comes to conquer in His 2nd coming. And it is Jesus only who conquers, not us. Until then, we imitate Jesus as He came in His first coming, which is to serve.

        Syncretism can be tricky. Such as when one makes Rome the context of the word ‘Gospel’ regardless of the context that the New Testament constantly refers to. But then again, James reminds us that all of us stumble in many ways.

        1. Your accusations of syncretism reveal a complete misunderstanding of how language is used in any context, much less the swirling environment of the first century. Furthermore, the apostles had an obvious active participation (see Col 1:24) in the mission, one we are called to emulate.

          I appreciate your zeal, devotion, and learning. However syncretism is a mighty charge to level at a dedicated Protestant and I think you have shot before aiming.

          1. Ron,
            As I said, syncretism can be tricky. That means that we are all vulnerable to practicing it. I know I am.

            After all, politically speaking, I lean toward Marx. Am I vulnerable to practicing syncretism? I have some safeguards such as having major disagreements with Marx. But does that mean that I never practice syncretism involving Marx? I’m afraid that I am not the most qualified person to answer that question because acknowledging the possibility that I have given into some syncretism involves a conflict of interest in terms of how I want to see myself.

            According to James, we all stumble in many ways. And that means that we have to be more open to admitting our faults. My point regarding your article was this, despite the use of language, Rome and its empire was not the primary or even a secondary context for the Gospel, reliance on obeying the Mosaic law was the primary context. IMO, you recognized Rome has playing a larger role in the context of the Gospel than I see the New Testament acknowledging. And so, IMO, you made your position more vulnerable to syncretism–remember that I said syncretism can be tricky. And some of the conclusions you drew from that elevation of Rome in the context of the Gospel which, IMO, are unwarranted or need more nuance when reading the New Testament. In particular, that the Gospel has societal implications and then talk and an obedience that affects societal structures. Those statements need more nuance especially with an article that is posted on a website that calls for a strong form of Christian Nationalism.

            I agree with you that American Christians have introduced too much individualism into the Gospel. I agree that the Gospel calls on us to address public behavior and society. But those statements are too broad especially considering the context that the American Reformer provides.

    3. These comments are on par with the 50-page defenses of female elders. I used to go back and forth with a guy on a message board who would write similar long, intellectual comments justifying things like lowering firefighter fitness standards so that women could pass the exam. Then I found out he was a 50-something-year old professor of world religion, an atheist, never married, no kids, who kept all kinds of different animals as pets. You’ll lose your mind debating someone like that, because they are too detached from reality to be constrained by it. There’s a similar energy here.

      Sodomites parade through the streets and Christ is brazenly dishonored in the public sphere, but those don’t cost him a wink of sleep. Instead, he will toss and turn over the local church that petitioned for the Pride parade to be denied a permit. “Don’t they know that this harms the gospel? How will the oppressed trans people who are just passionate about child literacy repent if they feel anything less than acceptance from Christians?” He can hardly acknowledge that there may be some bit of sin in society, before washing his mouth with a paragraph of admonitions against Christians. If he can dissuade someone from doing something bold for Christ, he will be very pleased to have won a small battle against bigotry.

      Consider the time you spent reading his comment as a thorough inoculation against unchristian thinking. Go serve the Lord – He knows who His good and faithful servants are.

      1. Psalm2 12,
        Your first paragraph is meant to discredit rather than engage in a rational discussion? Is such an approach driven by biblical concerns? The real issue of your comment is how do the Scriptures want us to react to the sins of the LGBT community.

        When Paul talks about homosexuality in Romans 1, he discusses a root cause for that sin, as well as other sins. He describes how sinful homosexuality is. But he tempers our reaction to that sin by describing it as a sin that is not surprising to expect from unbelievers. And then he continues with Romans 2. And Romans 2 makes 2 points. First, we religious people are not to judge those described in Romans 1 because we share the same sins with those we judge. Second, those not knowing God often do what we should be doing but are not. He finishes Romans 1 &2 with Romans 3:9; that we are all in the same boat because of our sins.

        So at what point in our Christian lives have we matured past the need of praying the prayer of the Publican from the parable of the 2 men praying? And at what point is it safe for us to pray the prayer of the Pharisee instead? Doesn’t James warn us not to judge others because even though we may not be committing the same sins that the person we are judging is committing, we commit our own sins and thus we too are law breakers? And isn’t that why James says showing mercy is preferred to showing judgment? And doesn’t James then go on to remind us that ‘we all stumble in many ways’?

        So how should we react to what goes on in the public square? After all, are we not seeing the public demonstration of many of the same sins that were committed during the days of the Apostles? And so how did the Apostles interpret those public demonstrations? Did they believe that those public demonstrations dishonored Christ? Or didn’t Paul say at the end of I Cor 5 that he was to judge those in the Church but not those in society? Didn’t Paul respond to the public demonstrations by describing them as sins and then he went on to preach the Gospel?

        Also, and this should strike fear in all of us, when we call ourselves Christians, everything we do and say and everything we refrain from doing and saying can be associated with the Gospel. And that should strike fear into our hearts because, as mentioned before, James reminds us that we all stumble in many ways.

        So what do we want to associate with the Gospel seeing that, because of our sins, all of us Christians have hurt the reputation of the Gospel? Do we want people to see our own righteousness? Or do we want people to see Christ’s righteousness? Remember that Christ’s righteousness is a righteousness that has been imputed to us through faith in Christ rather than through our own efforts to keep the Law.

      2. Thanks for saying, better than I’ve ever been able to, what I’ve been thinking about his comments on various websites since I first encountered him many years ago.

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